So how does one go from Broadway dancer-choreographer to author?
I came to writing late. My one dream was to dance on Broadway, and I did that for years. But after dancing in everything from a Super Bowl halftime show to The Little Mermaid, I felt that my career had ended up in a pile of Playbills under my coffee table. I wanted to do something that would last longer than a show that closes.
You started your first book, Better Nate Than Ever, while you were working as a choreographer on Billy Elliot. How did you get it all done?
For someone who got into theater so he could sleep in for a living, it was a hard schedule to adjust to. I would wake up at 7 a.m., and before I could talk myself out of it, I’d write for about two hours, eat a string cheese, and go down to work with the Billy Elliots until 10 at night. I found I was able to do the same thing I’ve always done, which is tell stories — it’s just that I wasn’t telling them with my body, as a performer; it was with my keyboard.
Did you base Nate’s story — running away from a small town, auditioning for a musical in New York — on your own life?
Yes. I think any boy who knows the lyrics to Sweeney Todd before he knows the state capitals is going to get a certain amount of teasing. I was that kid, and I still meet that kid. If the first book was about following your dreams no matter what, I wanted Five, Six, Seven, Nate! to cover what happens when you get what you always wanted but it ends up being different from what you thought.
Five, Six, Seven, Nate! feels like an authentic look at how a Broadway show gets made — in this case, the fictional E.T.: The Musical. That’s something you don’t expect in a middle-grade novel.
I think of the book as Smash with acne because it’s like watching a show come together through the eyes of a kid who doesn’t even know how big this production is. This is coming from someone who was in the Broadway production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, so I know what it’s like to see a beloved movie get adapted for the stage and not go quite right. [Laughs]
Nate is such a strong character. He’s so different from the kids around him, he’s bullied, and yet he continues to pursue his Broadway dreams.
Nate is more resilient than I was. That’s another reason I wrote the books — to rewrite my own history of when I hid in the shadows for a couple years.
Will we ever see Nate on Broadway or on the big screen?
I’m actually working on a screenplay adaptation of Nate right now.
Will we ever see you on Broadway again?
I never had a day where I nailed a hook in the wall and hung up my tap shoes, but it’s been six or seven years since I performed in a Broadway show. I’ve become more drawn to writing simply because when you’re the writer, you get to be the dancer, choreographer, set designer, producer. You get to do it all.